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This is the archive for September 2009

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

I suppose a lot of people would think it strange or unusual at best to use vacation time to grab a flight to Boston, rent a car, and pay for three nights of hotel rooms just to get a peek at a book from a defunct G.A.R. Post in Middleboro, Massachusetts. And let's not even talk about their reaction to someone walking through cemeteries searching for elusive graves instead of lying on a beach. Some people chase the sun. I chase dead people.

We first learned of the existence of the E.W. Peirce Grand Army of the Republic Post No. 8 book about two years ago. We didn’t know exactly what the book, kept in a safe at the Middleboro Town Clerk’s Office, contained, but, having seen excerpts from a similar book, we had a pretty good idea the book contained written memoirs of the wartime experiences for Post members. We had a pretty good idea, too, that some entries would be lengthy, others very brief, so the entire venture was undertaken with the realistic expectation there wouldn’t be a gold mine of information waiting, but more likely something akin to a thin vein of material.

We’ve paid others to help out with research on the 18th Mass. a few times, including twice when college students grabbed materials from their campus libraries. Those ‘finds’ yielded relatively small amounts of information, but shelling out $60 to $120 was more practical than paying travel expenses to, say, Hanover, New Hampshire. We had a similar hope with the Middleboro G.A.R. book, that we could find a local willing to help out, but, in spite of very generous financial inducements, we couldn’t entice anyone to visit the Middleboro Town Hall. Bull. Hands. Horns. You get the picture and understand the edict. Most times if you want something done you have to do it yourself and take the resulting credit card bills in stride.

Massachusetts had 210 Grand Army of the Republic Posts; Rhode Island 27; Vermont 116; New Hampshire 94; Maine 167; Connecticut 87; Virginia 28; South Carolina 6; Mississippi 3; Florida 21; North Carolina 17; Georgia 13; New York 670; and Illinois, where the G.A.R. was founded 779. Each individual Post kept a “Personal War Sketches” book supplied by the National Commandery. From what I’ve been able to ascertain very few survive. The question is what happened to them? Were they simply thrown out with the trash, or are they are in private hands? The George H. Maintien Post No. 133 in Plainville, MA provides a good example of what fate can have in store. Their records were inherited by the local Veterans of Foreign Wars Post, but then simply disappeared about 15 to 20 years ago. I remember, too, scouring around for papers written and presented by members of the O.W. Lull GAR Post No. 11 in Milford, New Hampshire and finding a cold trail, as neither the local library or historical society had anything in their files.

I spent about seven hours over a two day period at the Middleboro Town Hall in a room that lacked air conditioning, on what turned out to be the hottest days of the summer, transcribing page after page of biographies. I didn't complain though. How do you complain when you're looking at something from a hundred years ago that very few people have had the opportunity to view with their own eyes? It was pretty exciting stuff to me, though Gail and Liz, who manned the Clerk's office, seemed less enthusiastic about my periodic pronouncements over the latest find.

Let me share this observation, based on years of having lived in New England, about the attitude of most people in that region toward the Civil War. It ended a long time ago.

So what secrets did the book hold? Not too many unfortunately, although there were enough of them to have made the trip worthwhile. But the 318 pages of bios, most written for vets from other regiments, went pretty much according to expectations. There were long entries and short entries. Those at the beginning of the book seemed to have the longest, while those at the end the shortest. Typical of the contrast are these two entries:

Comrade Albert Shaw, who was born the Thirty-first day of May, 1841 in West Bridgewater, County of Plymouth, State of Massachusetts, enlisted from Middleboro and was mustered into the U.S. Service in Co. D, 18th Mass. Vol. Inft., August 24, 1861 to serve three years; participated in engagements as follows: at Yorktown, Va. April 5th to May 4th, 1862; Williamsburg, Va., May 5th; Fair Oaks, Va., May 31st; Seven Days battle, Va., June 25th to July 1st; Second Bull Run, Aug. 30th; Antietam, MD, Sept. 17th; Shepherdstown, Va. Sept. 20th; Fredericksburg, Va., Dec. 13th; Richards Ford, Va., Dec. 30th, 1862; Chancellorsville, Va. May 1st to 4th - 63; Rappahannock Station, Va. Nov. 7th 1863; Mine Run Nov. 26th to 30th, 1863; Wilderness, Va. May 5th to 7th, 1864; Laurel Hill, Va. May 8th; Spottsylvania, Va. May 10th to 18th; North Anna, Va. May 23rd to May 27th; Shady Grove Road, Va. May 30th; Cold Harbor, Va. June 1st to 12th; and Petersburg, Va., June 20th to July 20th, 1864. Was never wounded or sick in hospital during his service and on Sept. 2nd, 1864 was discharged by reason of expiration of term of service.
His father's name was Darius Shaw, his mother's Emeline Billings.
He was a charter member of Post 8, now resides in Wareham, Mass.
Died Jan. 16, 1909.
Joined E.W. Peirce Post No. 8 as a Charter Member on March 16, 1867. No offices are listed.

Comrade Charles C. Mellen, who was born Thirteenth day of December 1824 in Quincy, County of Norfolk, State of Massachusetts, enlisted at Readville, Mass. May 7th, 1861 as private in Co. D, 18th Mass. Infantry and was discharged at Emery Hospital, Washington, April 18, 1864 by reason of disability. Was present at Siege of Yorktown. He mentions as the most important event in his service the retreat of the Seven Days fight.
Died April 9, 1896 [sic]
Joined the E.W. Peirce G.A.R. Post No. 8 on March 26, 1881, but held no offices.

So what did we learn about Shaw? That his father's name was Darius and not Dennis as we had on file and we were also able to confirm additional battles he was engaged in, as well as the date he joined the E.W. Peirce Post. Regarding Mellen,, the book lists an incorrect date of death. We know the date of death is incorrect, because its been confirmed through his pension record at the National Archives.

One of the real surprises and one that we probably wouldn't have found from any other source was this citation for William S. McFarlin, former Captain of Company C. I think this qualifies as a definite 'wow.'

"After his discharge [October 19, 1862 due to disability] he was assigned to a storeroom in Washington where hospital parcels were handled and later was in charge of the corral where wagons, horses, & mules were cared for. The funeral of President Lincoln was due on the 19th. He planned to attend it when he learned a pass was necessary & only 500 were assigned. Boston Corbett had received one and being busy he gave it to the Capt..."

Boston Corbett, for those who need their memories jogged, was the man who allegedly fired the shot that mortally wounded John Wilkes Booth a week later at Garrett's Farm. It'd be interesting to learn if McFarlin and Corbett actually knew one another, or if Corbett simply gave his ticket away to first person looking for one. A small thing for sure, but one of those little tidbits of history that keeps you coming back for more. Just like a not so little black book kept in a Town Hall safe that someone will probably pour through a hundred years from now and say "wow!"